Red Velvet – A Bizarre Food Dye Frenzy

Everywhere, as we speak, bakers are dumping entire bottles of food dye into chocolate cake. Why? Marissa Sertich speculates.
By Marissa Sertich

Red Velvet Cupcakes
A blue chocolate chip cookie would be suspect and a magenta crème brulée might raise a few eyebrows, but somehow bright red cake slipped under the radar. Somehow, this sanguine stuff has become the popular norm. Everywhere, as we speak, bakers are dumping entire bottles of food dye into chocolate cake. Why?  What is appetizing about eating a blood-red colored cake? When did we loose sight that this behavior is objectively bizarre? Where did all the insanity begin?

Well, the question of human folly is not easily answered. Apparently, neither is the origin of the red velvet cake.

Although, there are several conflicting theories, the most common is that “Devil’s Food,” and red velvet cake once referred to the same thing. Before cocoa powder was “dutched,” (A chemical process that neutralizes cocoa powder, which is naturally very acidic, giving it a darker color and more mellow flavor), the acidic cocoa powder reacted chemically with the baking soda to reveal a subtle, naturally red hue in the final product. Today, almost all red velvet recipes contain an acid, such as vinegar or buttermilk, which enhances that red pigment in the cocoa.

Therefore, the “Devil,” in Devil’s Food, did simply refer to the sinful quality of the cake, but at one time, also alluded to the cake’s mysteriously reddish hue. When dutch-processed cocoa powder became more popular, bakers compensated with dye or beet juice, achieving a more exaggerated result.

Some say red velvet cake (as we know it today…with lots of red food dye) was first served at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 20’s. Others claim that it has southern roots and its modern-day popularity can be attributed to the 1989 film, “Steel Magnolias,” in which a red velvet armadillo-shaped groom’s cake is served.

One thing is for certain; no matter where red velvet cake came from, or why, today it is everywhere.  Although objectively absurd (and consuming food dye by the cup-full is probably not advisable), red velvet is an admittedly fun cultural phenomenon.

Marissa Sertich

Marissa Sertich Velie is a New York based pastry chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She passionately documents her adventures of baking and eating her way through the fascinating (and sometimes nutty) underbelly of the American pie. Velie has a Master's degree in Food Studies from NYU.

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3 Comments
  1. I adore red velvet cake. The bit of punch of the vinegar is what makes it for me. I, however, do not get the bottles of food dye called for in most recipes. If you make the cake with oil (and not a solid fat like butter), I have rarely had to use more than a tsp of dye to get the desired color. Ok, maybe mine is not lipstick red, but it is very red! It makes no sense. I know. I should just eat chocolate cake with vinegar, but the red somehow is important. Maybe I shall try with beets next time.

  2. Marissa,

    To be fair, red velvet cake isn’t a full chocolate flavored cake as mentioned in your article. The most well-known characteristic of a good red velvet cake is that it has a light cocoa flavor fused with vanilla and buttermilk, as opposed to it’s complete chocolate flavored brethren.

    1. I totally agree! I shake my head every time someone says red velvet cake is a chocolate cake. NOT. It has cocoa powder in it, but it should not taste like a pure chocolate cake.

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